The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

New Weird Britain

New Weird Britain In Review For October By Noel Gardner
Noel Gardner , October 25th, 2021 07:36

Noel Gardner unearths some East Sussex noise, the world's first modular acoustic synth, RAF early warning techno, and other odd gems from the British DIY underground

Genevieve Murphy

First up this month, one of my rarer-than-I’d-like-actually dips into the UK noise scene, albeit an outlier within it, in the form of Cremation Lily Smells The Flowers (Strange Rules): the first release of 2021 by Zen Zsigo aka Cremation Lily, an East Sussex solo act with a distinctive, prolifically honed approach.

I say “first release” as most calendar years yield more Lily produce than this – yet by Zsigo’s own description this marks a kind of watershed moment for his creative practise, where he still loves making textured, soul-bearing analogue ambient noise but is fed up with the noise scene. Neither the first nor the last to undertake this journey, of course, it’s given us a six-track smasher of a tape all considered.

With a pre-Cremation Lily background in a screamo/post-hardcore type band, Maths, this influence pervades Smells The Flowers, Zsigo’s vocals transmitting cement-raw agony even while pounded into unintelligibility by degraded tape flutter. There’s the scum-fi esoterica of black metal’s less rocking, more ambient wing embedded in these 23 minutes too: I think ‘A Certain Fragrance’ and ‘But We Made It Mean Something’ are all-synth/no guitar creations, yet amidst the spectral drone something fizzes and throbs, rifflike.

‘Ceremony Flowers’ – submerged hollering; a soundbed that resembles a tractor reversing over a field of skulls – is the one thing here I’d describe as power electronics. In the spirit of collaboration, which has been a frequent Cremation Lily feature, a special edition of this comes with a bonus tape “that YOU can use in almost any way that you’d like”. DSOIY: do some of it yourself.

A tape of very odd music with titles like ‘Gutsplankslime’ was assessed in the very first of these columns. Its creators, DunningWebsterUnderwood, are the roaming types; the precarious dub techno instruments of Graham Dunning and free saxman at large Colin Webster have since been re-bigged up, and now it’s the turn of Sam Underwood, thanks to his new album as MrUnderwood, ams – Umber Ne. It’s released by The State51 Conspiracy label, indeed they coined the initial concept: Underwood was tasked to record an LP using a musical instrument he’d built for the occasion.

He has some form in this department, notably in cahoots with Dunning, between them fashioning the Mammoth Beat Organ a few years ago. For this project, Underwood has again combined modular technology and analogue components, resulting in the acoustic modular system, or ams (not AMS, apparently, but like a Cockney would say “hams”). So when called into action, the device clanks and whirrs and strikes attached sound sources, such as drums or a dulcimer; the human modding the modulations, Underwood in this case, can alter tone and tempo through his external control pad.

It’s all dead crafty in a don’t-call-it-steampunk way, and absent being able to see it happening in the soldered flesh, actually sounds good too! Certainly if you dig free folk at its least song-based and sound art at its more cheerful. Plenty of what you hear is played, as opposed to merely controlled, by Underwood, like the bucolic jazz woodwind on ‘Rone’ and the tentative, clop-hooved backbeat of ‘Aster’, but he couldn’t have made all this with his primitive humanoid appendages. ‘Ilt’, the dulcimer-based composition, is intense and suitably hammering – dense clang that’ll make you believe a machine digs Nissenenmondai.

Memotone is an alias of William Yates that started in early 2010s Bristol as a lurid quasi-bass music concern, and like many such producers changed lanes over time. By no means pivoting to hi-gloss pop like, say, Rustie, Yates has maintained the Memotone name as well as adopting a couple of others, and demonstrated an affinity for British folk tradition and occult vibes. Shiro – an album-length tape on his own Memorecs, and his second release since the last NWB column – is completely divorced from club textures, and took my fancy to an unexpected degree.

Keys, woodwind and a banjo – maybe something zithery early on too – come into play for 13 pleasantly creepy pieces that often imply an improv-like freedom, although Yates specifies having “written” them. ‘Forget Resistance’ shifts gear from Japanese folk fragility to a disquieting bluegrass exorcism; pieces for piano, or electric piano, stand in the minimalist composition and nocturnal jazz camps concurrently (‘New Peace’). At its most ripplingly composed, say ‘Sarson’, I’m reminded of Andrew Chalk’s Elodie project, which is a high compliment, although there’s more strings, literally, to Shiro’s bow.

Newcastle’s Cruel Nature label has recently put a wodge of late-Oct tapes up for advance streaming, and One Key Magic leapt out at me thanks to its backstory and sonics alike. They’re a locally-located duo with one musician, Chris Tate, who’s featured on quite a few CN releases already, and Michael Mulvihill, an artist and researcher specialising in nuclear weapons and their societal impact. His part of the world houses RAF Fylingdales, a radar base with the primary function of missile detection. The pulses generated by the radars in question have been captured, had their frequencies adjusted for human capabilities, and form the droning basis of the six instrumental pieces on Worldly Noise And Electronic Atmospheres.

All of which is fine conceptual window dressing, although the extent to which it legitimises the nuclear defence industry is up for debate. (Mulvihill for one doesn’t present as pro-nuke, but by definition a project like this is a tacit suggestion that disarmament is not a realistic prospect.) Would you have an inkling of its sound sources without being told? Of course not – but Worldly Noise is stirring and heady, a fine example of a beatless drone-rock opus. Layers of e-bowed guitar and synth swell and shapeshift without threatening to succumb to spacerock cliché: something like ‘Millstone Hill’ could’ve sprang from the dankest depths of the early 70s Berlin School set. ‘Moon Bounce’ is more seashore-soothing, with a pastoral lilt, but retaining distortion that disorients, and ‘Electric Sea Warfare’, which lasts 18 minutes, could be an early Spiritualized obscurity.

Drone-rock that seems to favour the rock over the drone while utilising both keenly, Smote’s second long player of 2021 puts a sound I’ve not heard many great recent examples of back into my ears. Drommon (Rocket) is actually a half-hour tape (on the Base Materialism label, whose steez is normally way noisier than this) pressed to vinyl with ten more minutes of wiggin’ from Daniel Foggin – another Toon resident who, on record at least, does everything Smote.

‘Drommon’ parts one and two, which comprised the tape, lean respectively towards White Hills-ish rifferama and incense-choked doom raga. The jazzish wailings of the second segment elevate it beyond Krauthippy kitsch, if not quite eliminating its presence entirely. ‘Hauberk’, one of the two shorter pieces in the middle, goes for broke with hand drums and flute which eventually coalesce into extremely buoyant psych-folk; ‘Poleyn’, the other, straps up a slow, insistent bass riff and groovy basement-prog organ.

Tompkins Square is an American record label named after an American location which most often releases music by Americans – though also Welsh folk guitarist Gwenifer Raymond, whose knotty instrumentals are fairly in step with its catalogue in general. Lupa, the latest full-length from Elsa Hewitt, isn’t at all, in that it’s possibly Tompkins Square’s first ever brush with quote-unquote electronic music. (It’s also another cassette release, in this case by the artist herself, reissued on wax a few months later.) The smudgy, bedheaded approach of Hewitt, a Yorkshirewoman presently in London, nevertheless retains a singsongy, organic dreaminess and feels like something a wide range of people could enjoy.

‘Howl’, which opens Lupa, disassembles what may in fairness be folk chords inside a frame of languid-but-euphoric beats and her own treated vocals. Beatific or familiar sounds are glitched and backmasked, repeatedly turning the agreeable gloopy: there’s a shoegaze angle to Hewitt’s soundcraft, where an obvious taste for melody spars with that for subverting it, and a painkiller fug to the rhythms of tracks like ‘Lavender’. I’m indirectly reminded of a lot of stuff over these nine tracks, but never get the notion that Elsa Hewitt is biting any style or trying to glom onto any one scene. Lupa washed over me first time round, too, but has textural depth and is worth your while.

Oh to be a Spice Girls fan celebrating her eighth birthday in the “cinema room” of her family home, being instructed on how to correctly pronounce avocado when offering a bowl of same to assembled party guests. This is the scenario related by Genevieve Murphy on I Don’t Want To Be An Individual All On My Own (Unsounds), which debuted as a one-woman theatre show last year in Utrecht (Murphy is from Scotland but lives in the Netherlands) and is now an album. There are instances of music with words, such as the pneumatic dance beats and looped vocals of introductory track ‘About To Turn 8’; music with no words, e.g. the queasy second half of ‘Your Feeling’; and words with no music, or perhaps some incongruous sound effects, where Murphy recalls her preteen emotions or assumes the persona of her overbearing mother as she plans the daughter’s party in her own disagreeable image.

At one point, a nude performance artist leaps out of some bushes and terrifies the children, in light of which we might question if this is an entirely faithful retelling of events. (The inference may be that the brain has a habit of distorting memories over time.) We might also wonder why we’re expected to care about a posh girl having a birthday 25 years ago, and here I would mention Murphy’s shrewd turns of phrase, her ability to make a mundane scenario sound curious, and the musical sections of drifting synth and dreamstate jazz. Like Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives, perhaps, you may find yourself invested in I Don’t’s goings-on without ever quite knowing why.

Eyeless In Gaza are a Midlands entity which started out weird and inaccessible some 40 years ago, moved into vaguely pop-friendly post punk territory and then returned to the undergrowth, where they cultishly remain. They’re either a duo or trio, depending on whether Peter Becker and Martyn Bates are joined by Bates’ spouse Elizabeth S. – who has just released her first solo album, Gather Love, through Austrian label Klanggallerie (after an initial self-pressed version last year).

It’s an alluring set of left-of-the-dial folk with outbreaks of avant, and largely distinct from Eyeless In Gaza soundwise, although Becker and Bates feature on groovy DIY industrial number ‘No Rain’. Opening with ‘Misborn’s sawing, clattering discord, a sort of calm descends thereafter, plaintive keyboards meeting minimalist acoustics and Elizabeth’s voice: cracked and haunted, like a centurion mourning her best years as she reads her telegram from the Queen, and often double-tracked to up the confounding factor. “The change can’t be stopped – the old souls must PAY,” she cackles on ‘The Hill’, soft percussion and tranced-out folk drone in her slipstream.

Of a similar vintage and subgenre, though standing under a different corner of the post punk tarpaulin, London’s The Sound were modestly appreciated in the 1980s but have had their widescreen pop gloom reassessed in recent years. Singer Adrian Borland didn’t live to see this, however, having killed himself in 1999. Among the myriad obscurities in Borland’s catalogue, A Simple Vision by The Crazies may be the least known of all – until now, with this reissue by indie archivists Optic Nerve.

Arguably, it was never issued in the first place: recorded in 1978 by Borland, Pete Williams, Bi Marshall, Graham Bailey and Adrian Janes between the breakup of The Outsiders and the formation of The Sound, with all members aside from Williams featuring in one or both bands, it existed only on a few privately circulated tapes. It’s seven songs of gonzo garage punk that doesn’t sound much like The Outsiders or The Sound, or much happening in the UK scene of the time, and seems to be vocalist Williams’ conceptual baby: his lyrics were adapted from lurid newspaper articles, while the band threw their arrangements together on the spot. Borland’s guitar tone is exquisite shit-fi on Stoogian rockers like ‘Scorch Torch’ and ‘Strontium’, with moments of proto-Cramps goth (‘Human Pie’), quasi-Suicidal accounts of American sickness (‘Bodybag’) and repeto-psych a la Hawkwind. Williams would reappear in the late 80s fronting the comparably freekish Honolulu Mountain Daffodils, with Borland on guitar.

Were the Normil Hawaiians ever a punk band? They cite the alleged death of the scene, circa 1979 (yeah I’m repping old weird Brits for the last part of this column, get on my level), as part of the reason for their formation, so you’d suppose not – but let’s avoid taxonomy and concentrate on this amorphous London gaggle’s overrunning cup of ideas and countercultural nous. Dark World, the latest Normil Hawaiians archive release on Upset The Rhythm, collects their recorded output prior to their 1982 debut LP: 22 songs from various singles, demos and a Peel session.

Less irascible than The Pop Group or dancer-friendly than A Certain Ratio, turns like ‘Obedience’ – noisy funk with dubby post-production touches – share some common ground with those bands. Elsewhere, though, there’s a folky new wave song, ‘Ventilation’, that sounds like it was written for a school talent contest; ‘Uncle Green Genes’, equal parts glam, prog and UKDIY inside 150 seconds; a cover of Eraserhead soundtrack staple ‘In Heaven’; and zonged-out constructs of drunken-lounge-act piano and Guy Smith’s gravely enunciated vocals (‘Sang Sang’, ‘Exhibit’) that would feature more heavily in their oeuvre when Normil Hawaiians made the jump to an album band.

With Dark World’s release, more or less everything this band recorded appears to now be available, so hopefully the two endearing songs released last year will be followed up with more new Hawaiians music.